How Far Can Their Dialogue Go?


For several tense minutes last week, it seemed as if the first “National Summit of Imams and Rabbis” might fail even before it got off the ground.

Both participants and observers waited with bated breath as Sheik Omar Abu-Namous, one of the event’s organizers, called for an Israeli “apology” to the Palestinians, along with some form of compensation for families who lost their land in 1948, the year Israel was established.

The moment seemed to be a repetition of what took place a year ago, when the imam addressed congregants at the New York Synagogue, the Manhattan congregation led by Rabbi Marc Schneier. At the time, Sheik Abu-Namous, a 73-year-old Palestinian and the leader of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, criticized Israel on several counts and called for a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This time around, however, Rabbi Schneier acknowledged the imam’s concerns and then turned to one of his own: the expulsion of 850,000 Jews from Arab lands in the 1940s and ‘50s. Both sides have experienced pain, the rabbi said, and he and Sheik Abu-Namous now have the type of relationship in which they can openly discuss that issue and others.

From there, the 25 rabbis and imams attending the Nov. 7 conference went on to forge warm ties with each other and to call for a national weekend of joint activities between mosques and synagogues. The daylong event, sponsored by Rabbi Schneier’s Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, took place at the New York Synagogue and the Islamic Cultural Center, the city’s largest mosque.

The workshops explored the religious commonalities between Muslims and Jews, how the two communities could overcome mutual stereotypes and how they might cooperate with each other, especially during times of crisis. Toward that end, participants agreed to schedule two days of joint activities for the third weekend of November 2008, just before Thanksgiving.

The conference also featured local figures, both Jewish and Muslim, whose efforts to fight poverty and ethnic hatred could be a model for other communities.

For all the open discussion, though, the event’s organizers asked participants to avoid any mention of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, leading some observers to wonder how realistic or long-lasting such a dialogue could be. Indeed, one speaker, Imam Al-Hajj Talib Abdur-Rashid of the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem, referred to the subject as “the 800-pound gorilla in the room.”

That view gained traction when Rabbi Simeon Glaser, the associate rabbi of Temple Israel in Minneapolis, questioned the wisdom of avoiding the subject, noting that nearly every speaker until that point had referred to it in some way. The situation, he said, “reminds me of when I do marriage counseling” only to stumble on one major issue that never gets discussed.

Responding to those comments, Rabbi Bob Kaplan, director of intergroup relations and community concerns at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, said marriage counseling, which he, too, has done, sometimes involves steering clear of the main issue while tackling all the others. Moreover, the therapist often learns that “the 800-pound gorilla is really not what they’re fighting about anyway. They use the 800-pound gorilla to beat each other up.”

Similarly, said Rabbi Kaplan, a speaker at the event, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “has no bearing” on any of the local issues facing the 25 clerics. “I can guarantee you,” he added, “that the Mideast conflict is not going to be solved here. It may not even be solved there.”

In an interview later, Rabbi Schneier said the event’s ground rules were designed simply as a way to initiate dialogue but that he expects the subject to come up at later forums.

Rabbi Schneier pointed to his exchange with Sheik Abu-Namous as evidence of how far such a dialogue can go. Sheik Abu-Namous now acknowledges that the conflict also produced Jewish refugees, a problem the imam denied a year ago, the rabbi said, and he knows of other clerics “who have gone through similar evolutions.”

Rabbi Schneier also pronounced himself “buoyantly optimistic” about creating dialogue in this country between Muslims and Jews. His optimism springs partly from a survey conducted last spring by the Pew Research Center in which most American Muslims identified the growing extremism among Muslims, in general, as their chief concern and expressed support for a two-state solution in the Middle East. The survey showed the vast majority of American Muslims is moderate, he said, adding, “Let’s see how we can project those voices internationally.”

The discussion during last week’s conference seemed to reflect those results.

In one workshop, for instance, Rabbi Yehuda Sarna and Imam Khalid Latif, both young clerics at New York University, discussed the warm relations that have developed between their respective communities. One story that captivated the rabbis and imams involved a celebration of Israeli Independence Day by NYU’s Jewish students.

As Rabbi Sarna explained, as the Jewish students gathered in Washington Square Park, a Muslim student stopped by to talk to some of his Jewish friends when he noticed other Muslim students attempting to disrupt the event, shouting “Free Palestine!” Torn by the situation, he eventually joined the Muslim students — but not before drawing them aside and suggesting that they maintain a polite distance from the celebration.

“That meant so much to me,” Rabbi Sarna said, referring to the Muslim student’s actions. “It meant that he thought it was possible to take a political point of view and even to disagree [with his Jewish friends] but, at the same time, to recognize that his Jewish friends had a right to their celebration and to respect them.”

For his part, Imam Latif spoke of sharing a room at an NYU dormitory during his senior year, 2003-2004, with five students — two of them Muslim, like himself, and the other two not only Jewish, but active Zionists. But the two campus communities weren’t as close as they are now, he said, and neither group of roommates — both of which “came in with a lot of preconceived ideas of each other” — never built a sound relationship. The imam, now 25, sees that failure as “a wasted opportunity.”

Earlier in the day, another imam, Syed Zaheer-ul Hassan, also drew attention when he acknowledged that moderate Muslims may be in the minority. The comment offered a contrast to those of other Muslim leaders who, perhaps feeling defensive, suggest that extremists have “hijacked” their faith and that supporters of terrorism represent only a tiny minority of Muslims. Those who are truly moderate, he said, may “have to start from scratch” and win adherents from a majority that remains on the sidelines.

Whatever future dialogue takes place, the Middle East remains a divisive issue, as indicated by Rabbi Glaser’s comments to The Jewish Week. The rabbi said he came to the conference filling in for his synagogue’s senior rabbi — an assignment that didn’t excite him a great deal. He also shared “some of those stereotypical fears of whether it’s useful for Jews and Muslims to talk to each other.”

As Rabbi Glaser listened to his Muslim counterparts, he heard “a lot of reasonable voices” and began to change his own thinking, he said. But he added that Israel, for him, remains central to any further discussion and he would have to think twice before engaging in dialogue with a cleric who doesn’t accept its right to exist.

Three Muslim clerics interviewed after the conference by the Jewish Week, including the Minneapolis imam paired with Rabbi Glaser, all said they would accept that right.

Mukram Nu’Man El-Amin, the spiritual leader of Masjid An-Nur in Minneapolis, said he sees a two-state solution “as the most viable idea” — a conclusion he reached after extensive conversation with Temple Israel’s senior rabbi and after a mission to Israel last year with other clerics. Speaking of both himself and his colleagues, Imam El-Amin said they view the issue as complex, “but, at the end of the day, we feel that all peace-loving, God-fearing people should believe in coexistence” in the Middle East.

Hassan, imam at the Jafria Center in Middlefield, Conn., said he, too, believes that a two-state solution is the best one and that both the Israelis and the Palestinians deserve to live in peace and security. And even Sheik Abu-Namous, while adhering to his view that a one-state solution would be “the shorter road to peace,” said he would accept a two-state solution — “whatever brings peace.”

Even if participants only agree to disagree about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Rabbi Schneier believes American Jews must engage in dialogue with their Muslim counterparts. “I don’t think we have a choice in terms of the changing demographics of the United States, with the emerging Muslim community,” he said.

Others disagree, including Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, the neoconservative think tank in Philadelphia. Pipes, whose views on Islam are seen as anathema by many Muslims, said he believes that “a fundamental discussion” has to take place “about the relationship between these two religions.” But dialogue on any other matter — and certainly the joint activities planned for next year — would be “premature,” he added.

Last week’s conference was endorsed, though, by Jonathan Sarna (no relation to Rabbi Sarna), a professor of American-Jewish history at Brandeis University. Sarna said he sees the attempt at dialogue as similar to what American Jews and American Catholics did 50 or 60 years ago to better relations between their communities. “Tensions were terrible,” he said, and “it took a long time” to change that. But several decades later, he added, “Catholic-Jewish relations have been transformed.”